Carnsore: Why Ireland never got nuclear power


Talk by Alan MacSimoin at the WSM's 'Ideas and Action', May 2002. Alan was a participant in the Trade Union Anti-Nuclear Campaign and in the Dublin city centre local group.

Why Ireland never got nuclear power

Britain, France, Germany, the US, and a host of other countries the last 25 years have seen very large movements seeking to close down nuclear power stations. Ireland hasn't. We didn't need to. A big victory was won here when we stopped the then Fianna Fail government going ahead with their plans to build not one, but four, nuclear power stations at Carnsore Point in Co. Wexford in the late 1970s.

Chalie Haughey's arch-enemy in cabinet, George Colley, and Dessie O'Malley, then a Fianna Fail Minister and later a founder of the Thatcherite Progressive Democrats, kicked off the propaganda drive. We were promised clean and safe energy that would be so cheap it would be hardly worth metering.

A factor in Britain's growing nuclear programme was not only their nuclear weapons industry, but also a desire to break the back of a militant section of the workforce whose successes were encouraging many others to join the fight for higher wages.

Those were the miners, and a move to nuclear electricity generation would end their ability to hurt the government by stopping coal getting to the power stations. The class war against the miners saw the whole machinery of the state mobilised against them in the strike of 1984/85, when the miners fought bravely, but without sufficient solidarity action from other unions, against the pit closures which all but finished Britain's mining industry.

The Irish government may well have factored a similar reason into their desire to go nuclear. A decade previously they had been roundly defeated when they jailed ESB workers for going on strike. Such was the support from other workers that the government had to completely back down and even send a fleet of taxis up to Mountjoy jail to bring the strikers home.

If most power generation were to go nuclear there would be a smaller workforce who would find it impossible to go on strike because of the appalling safety risks.

Unfortunately for Dessie and his chums in the government and the ESB Board of Directors, not everyone accepted that his plan was for some sort of benevolent gift to the Irish people. The main white collar union in the ESB (the ESB Officers Association) produced a detailed report on the health, safety, and civil liberties risks. This was widely circulated both within the ESB and more generally in the trade union movement.

Parallel with this, local anti-nuclear groups sprang up all over the country. Within months a libertarian anti-nuclear magazine called the Contaminated Crow was able to give contact details for 48 groups. Cork had 9 groups, Dublin had 16.

And most of these were very active, with their own leaflets, newsletters, pickets of ESB offices. In Fintown, Co Donegal several hundred marched against uranium prospecting in the area. I remember a local march in Ballyfermot which saw a couple of hundred people, most from the immediate area, march to their local ESB shop.

Big free festivals were held at Carnsore in 1979, 1980 and 1981, which saw around 5,000 camping on the site. Three or four days of discussions, workshops and entertainment from artists as varied as Christy More and Chris De Burgh. (yes, it was a broad movement!)

Throughout all this there was no leader or central committee who the government could negotiate with, flatter or buy off. There was nothing we wanted to bargain about, everyone was agreed that we wanted no nuclear power in Ireland, full stop.

Local groups were completely independent and every three months or so one of them would host a national gathering where anyone could come along, share experiences, throw out ideas, appeal for help, make suggestions, and propose initiatives. Hundreds turned up at places like the State Cinema in Phibsboro, the Oscar Theatre in Sandymount, and a church hall in South Belfast. A gig in the evening would usually bring in enough cash to pay most of the bills.

In the midst of all this the nuclear power plant at Three Mile Island in the USA came within a few hours of going critical after a valve failed. The argument about the safety of nuclear power was well and truly shattered. A small indication of this was the fact that it was just about impossible to stand at any main road for more than five minutes without seeing at least one car with an anti-nuclear sticker on its bumper.

According to every single one of the polls done at the time there was a large majority against going ahead with construction at Carnsore. But the government was determined to press ahead, taking as much notice as they usually do, of people's wishes.

A sop thrown out was that they would set up an inquiry to investigate all the pros and cons. The more conservative sections of the movement, gathered around Friends of the Earth and the Wexford Nuclear Safety Association, agreed to take part. The majority refused, saying they had no confidence in any enquiry set up and financed by the government, and whose findings could be ignored even if the inquiry team somehow bit the hand that fed them and recommended against nuclear power.

When the government saw that almost all anti-nuclear activists were not going to be suckered into passively making submissions and then sitting at home hoping for a good result, the idea of an enquiry was quietly dropped.

The anarchists and sections of the left had, instead, called within the unions for blacking the job, and for a mass occupation of the site if construction started. This idea won massive support and led Dessie O'Malley to treat us to a semi-hysterical outburst where he warned that he would use the army if necessary to remove what he called "20,000 hippies".

With major opposition all over the island and several thousand determined to physically stop any building work, the Carnsore plan was quietly dropped. There was no big announcement, Dessie and his pals weren't going to give us the pleasure of listening to a public statement of surrender. But those of us who participated in the anti-nuke movement knew what we had achieved, and so did the state. That's why they never tried to reopen the issue, and why they went on to recover face by posing as our protectors against the dangers of Sellafield.

There are many lessons to take from all this. One I would like to share is the importance of publicising our victories. Too often a victory is seen as the end of a struggle, we forget to explain just what happened.

If we had gone back to every street, college, workplace and shopping centre where we had leafleted and handed out a final leaflet explaining that it was people power which had won, we could have increased people's confidence in their own ability to get together and bring about change. It is not enough to just share nice ideas with our friends and neighbours, they must feel that ordinary people like themselves can have an effect. What use are ideas if you don't think you can do anything to turn them into reality?

To start increasing confidence we should publicise any gains that are made by people taking direct action themselves. That's part of the struggle to replace the politics of passivity and dependency with those of confidence and optimism.